Extract from oral history of Tom Fitzgerald by Ken Inglis

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the National Library of Australia. Interview of Tom Fitzgerald, 01/02/1988 - 3/09/1988. JCPML00658/1. Original held by National Library of Australia TRC 2247

I was acclimatising myself, reading some very interesting files, but not given any assignments, though I knew I had to try to recruit economists to help me in this work. Lennox Hewitt then asked me, with his deputy, to join him and go over to talk to the Minister, after about, perhaps two weeks in the Department. We had a pleasant conversation. On the way over Len Hewitt said he thought the Minister would possibly ask me whether I could do some research into aspects of the trade relationship between Australia and Japan. Again, in the way it was put, it seemed an interesting question. But the Minister may have changed his mind in the course of our conversation.

When I made a few passing references to some of the taxation arrangements for mineral companies which needed, in my mind, some clarification. Anyway, after a pleasant conversation, he said, 'I would like you to report on this question. What is Australia getting from its mineral industry?' I said, 'Do you have in mind any aspects of...?' 'No, no,' he said, 'I don’t want to influence your approach to that broad question. I’ll leave it to you. It’s a hard one but you can do it.' He then left me alone.

I spent a bit of time looking for the obvious material one would need even to approach such a vast subject, such as official statistics. And found that they were useless for the purpose. They tended to be collected on different bases. You couldn’t correlate one set of statistics with another. That’s a long subject in its own right. I decided to try to compile from the reports of the various mineral companies, the kind of statistical information that I needed. And as I progressed I began to see that the results were different from what I had imagined as a journalist and observer before I had to try to apply some system to the material.

Early in 1974 I set myself the task of beginning to write the report. I had consulted a few economists, in particular in the University of Queensland. I’d gone to Brisbane to talk to Athol Fitzgibbons who had written interesting, rather theoretical but very pertinent pieces about the mineral industry. I worked on this throughout February and I found Canberra was a very good place to work. First of all being where I was in the Department I had access to material I never could have got otherwise. George Pooley had introduced me to officials in the Statisticians Branch and in the Taxation Office. And I’d been able to have conversations there that I could never have had otherwise. Though, particularly in Taxation, they strictly upheld their tradition of not disclosing information about particular taxpayers. But that was a very fruitful exchange of ideas and information. I remember on one occasion I was able to suggest that they had made a mistake in their own statistics relating to the minerals industry. And they were kind enough to say that they had made a mistake.

I had a few intermittent meetings with the Minister. He would call me over from time to time and talk about things in general. On one occasion he mentioned something in the Age newspaper and I said, 'Oh, I happened to have been asked this morning by the Editor, Graham Perkin, to write articles for him.' I thought that was amusing that I, working in the Department, would write...but Mr Connor, to my surprise, said, 'Mr Fitzgerald, if you want to write articles for the Age, that’s...that’s fine with me. I only hope to God you won’t be too severe on this government.'

And from that I drew him out on the personality of his Prime Minister. And he was very amusing describing the Prime Minister. Connor in public was a rock of solidarity and discretion. He never breathed a word of criticism of any other Minister. But in private he could be very witty and, I thought, very penetrating.

But on one of those occasions when I was over there talking about something or other...I saw...I saw only one compartment of Connor of course. Interpolating. There must have been a very unpleasant side to the man. I have to take that on the word of others. I never saw it. And he compartmentalised his relations with different people. He never breathed a word to me about the Khemlani loan.

On one of those occasions I was over there chatting with him he apologised to me. I had said to him on a previous meeting that I thought the Bureau of Mineral Resources was an underused asset of his Department. He apologised to me for not having done more to get in touch with the Bureau, with perhaps departmental officers and consider a review of its functions. He apologised. I said, “Oh well, there’s nothing to apologise for, Mr Connor. In fact I suppose I should apologise to you. I’ve given you no progress report at all on the project.” I said, “It’s becoming quite interesting.” And I gave him orally an outline of the conclusions I was tending to. He was absolutely amazed and fascinated, absorbed. And he said, “If you can give me any progress chapters of anything, drafts you’ve got I’d love to read them.” So I accelerated a bit my work, stayed up at weekends down at Canberra. Found that a very productive thing to do. And I gave him typescripts of a fair slice of what was the ultimately published report, I suppose in March.

He was very excited. He began to talk about it outside which was a bit of an embarrassment. I know at a meeting in Victoria, of the Labor Party, he said this report was going to have startling information in it. In the House of Parliament, in the lower house, he made a remark to the effect that he would eventually table a report which would answer a lot of his critics. I think he named me in it. And then came the bombshell, the Gair appointment and the crisis in the government and the calling of an early election.

The Minister said to me, that he was advised that – etiquette was the word he used – etiquette suggested that my report should go into limbo until after the elections. I said that was a matter for him, I was indifferent on that. Then, as I interpret it, he began to become quite frightened about the outcome of the election. I thought myself it was a fifty/fifty prospect. I couldn’t form any judgement as to what was the likely outcome of the election. He then asked whether I could have a draft prepared for possible use for publication. And he clearly meant that it would be published in such a way that it would have an impact on the elections. I said I would see what I could do, I thought I could produce something.

But it had...it did cut across badly...rather badly, arrangements I had made to have my paper given the status of a draft working paper to be circulated within that department and perhaps some other departments and to be particularly vetted by some outside economists who would be invited to come to Canberra and go through it chapter by chapter. And I had nominated two in particular, Athol Fitzgibbons and Professor Warren Hogan in Sydney. And the Minister had readily agreed to that, this is before the election crisis, and I had tentatively made vague arrangements to have that done to the paper. But it seemed to me that if the government lost the elections the paper would never be published and I would have no proprietorial rights over the material which I had drawn largely with the indispensable help of the Department. So I felt the thing was to have it published as I had drafted it, if the government wanted to.